Why was the Battle of the Somme film bigger than Star Wars?

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1. An unusual box office hit

Throughout the autumn of 1916, 20 million people flocked to see a silent film, The Battle of the Somme. This was nearly half the population of Britain at the time. The film remains one of the most watched in British cinema history, even bigger than Star Wars.

While cinema audiences had been shown newsreel footage for many years, it was never a major attraction – they were drawn in by the comedies of Charlie Chaplin, serials such as The Perils of Pauline or sweeping dramas from Hollywood like Intolerance.

The Battle of the Somme was different. It took real life footage and turned it into a main feature with mass appeal. The film showed images of the first week of the ‘Big Push’, the joint offensive which began in July 1916 where British and French armies hoped to break through the German lines and achieve victory on the Western Front.

2. Western Front filming

British Topical Committee for War Films

The Battle of the Somme footage was shot on behalf of the British Topical Committee for War Films.

This group of independent producers had lobbied the War Office to allow cameramen into the British section of the Western Front.

Although two cameramen were allowed to travel to France in late 1915, they were prevented from visiting the frontline trenches by senior military officers.

Film for propaganda

But there were people within the government requesting films that could help to gain support for Britain abroad.

The British ambassadors to neutral USA and Romania argued that cinema could encourage these countries to join the war on Britain’s side, as did the head of the War Propaganda Bureau, Charles Masterman.

Such pressure seemed to pay off in June 1916 when it was agreed that Malins and McDowell should be given access to the front lines during the upcoming Battle of the Somme.

3. War on the screen

Cinema was a young, but rapidly growing, industry when war broke out in 1914. There were around 4,000 cinemas across the UK, selling 20 million tickets a week. While the breakout of World War One disrupted cinema, it also offered new opportunities.

Francine Stock examines the attraction of the Battle of the Somme film to British audiences in 1916. Video archive preserved by the Imperial War Museum

4. Dramatising reality

One of the most famous scenes from the Battle of the Somme was that of the men going ‘over the top’. The soldiers climb out of their trench and advance towards the enemy. Some are cut down, presumably by enemy fire.

The academic consensus is that this scene was not filmed during the Battle of the Somme. Rather it seems likely that Geoffrey Malins captured this scene at a training facility and it was inserted into the film by editor Charles Urban.

The motive for this may have been to then added drama – Urban was keen for the film to have a sense of climax.

It is also possible that similar shots were taken but proved to be of insufficient quality once the film was developed and viewed back in London.

Alternatively, Malins and McDowell may have been unable to capture these scenes for practical reasons, such as ferocity of the artillery bombardment or machine fire.

5. Impact on war film

The rise and fall of the battle film

The success of The Battle of the Somme led to two further battlefield films being made.

The first of these, about the Battle of Ancre, was reasonably popular, but the follow up film, on the Battle of Arras, did not perform well at the box office.

It seems that the public tired of seeing the war on screen and began instead to look to the cinema for escapism and entertainment.

The War Office Cinematograph Committee (the replacement for the industry-run British Topical Committee for War Films) decided to abandon the battle feature film in favour of short formats, such as newsreels and magazine style features.

It must also be remembered that 1916 was a peak year for cinema attendance – attendance figures continued to fall into the early 1920s.

Entertainment Tax

A key factor in this was the introduction of the Entertainment Tax in 1916.

This tax was passed on to the audience, leading to an increase in ticket prices.

People began to reduce the number of times they would visit the cinema per week and became more selective about what they went to see.

Audiences were increasingly drawn to films featuring their favourite Hollywood stars, such as Mary Pickford or Charlie Chaplin.

6. Appeal to audiences

The Battle of the Somme offered a unique experience to its audience in 1916.

On a local level it had significant appeal because it featured and named particular regiments on screen. As regiments recruited from specific localities, going to see the film offered a chance to see people you knew.

The close-ups and panning shots employed by Malins and McDowell meant the audience could pick out people they knew.

Even to a contemporary audience the film continues to have a huge emotional impact.

This can be seen from the reaction of descendants of Somme veterans at a screening in London organised by The One Show.

7. Ethics of reconstruction

It is widely believed that The Battle of the Somme used footage of soldiers training but claimed it to be scenes of battle. Were they wrong to do this?

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Malins and McDowell were using heavy equipment in dangerous and difficult conditions, so it is possible they tried unsuccessfully to film such scenes.

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Some watched the film in the hope of seeing family or friends. The audience might have thought they were seeing someone they knew being killed on screen.